If you thought defending against the speedy forwards of the Columbus Blue Jackets was tough, let me introduce you to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every line honestly has a player or two on it who you absolutely can’t lose track of. Patrick Marleau is on the third line. Mitch Marner is on the fourth. (Justin Bourne at the Athletic breaks down Marner’s defensive woes that have led to a cut in minutes for him.) And Auston Matthews is always looming somewhere, ready to score four goals on you when you’re not paying attention.
It’s weird to think of the Maple Leafs as a team to be afraid of. Before, players would maybe circle this game on their calendars because it might mean a chance to see their families, since so many guys are from the Toronto area. Now, it’s a game they’ve got to keep an eye on just for how rapidly Toronto has turned into a team you can’t overlook.
Even without Matthews, this is a potent team, but it’s no secret that he’s in the driver’s seat of this Leafs renaissance. He’s got speed, size, and a ridiculously accurate shot.
Toronto has scored the most goals in the league (37; they were a mile ahead of their nearest competitor, the Tampa Bay Lightning, until the Lightning hung seven goals on the Pittsburgh Penguins and the now-waived Antti Niemi). They’re coming off of only their second loss, a mess of a game against the Senators, and as a young upstart team that wants to prove they can be contenders, they’re going to be motivated to come out flying against the Kings.
One of Toronto’s weaknesses continues to be defense; you’re bound to get a few more goals against when your whole team is just zooming after the puck. The addition of Roman Polak is a head-scratcher, though. For some reason, Mike Babcock seems to like him, but as someone who’s watched Polak since his days with the Blues, I’m still not certain what he brings to a team other than grit and physicality. Polak took the Brooks Laich route back to the NHL; he practiced with the Leafs without a contract until he was signed a few days ago. Polak told reporters that he was playing tonight, so look for him to get eased in on the bottom pairing, which is certainly something the Kings should try to take advantage of.
The Kings nearly jumbled up their defense today; early practice reports indicated Oscar Fantenberg may sit out, but he skated this morning on the bottom pairing with Christian Folin. Fantenberg played just over eight minutes against Columbus, a season low for the rookie. The Folin/Fantenberg duo struggled at times against Columbus, something I’m sure Toronto’s video coaches have already pointed out to their players. If this game turns into a tight one, look for that duo to spend some time on the bench. And with this being the first half of a back to back, it’s possible that Kurtis MacDermid will draw in tomorrow. (MacDermid’s slower style of play might be a better fit against the Senators, anyway.)
Up front, Nic Dowd finally gets back into a game, still back on his spot on the wing. I’ve got to admit that I’m incredibly curious about his usage and conversion to wing. The hope was that playing along the wall could cater more to his strengths on the puck, but right now it looks like he’s still adjusting to the new role, and it’s hard to really get going when you’re the healthy scratch all the time. Having been caught up in the “if we’re winning, we’re not going to change the lineup much” cycle, Dowd really needs to focus on having a consistently excellent game tonight to earn his way back into the lineup.
Someone please make a Twitter bot that just answers the question of “has Alex Iafallo been rewarded for his tenacious play with a goal yet”. I really enjoy watching this kid play, and he fits right in alongside Kopitar and Brown, surely not an easy feat for a rookie. Every time he gets near the net, I’m crossing my fingers that a puck will finally go in for him. Maybe tonight’s the night.
Projected Line Combinations
Los Angeles Kings
Iafallo - Kopitar - Brown
Pearson - Shore - Toffoli
Cammalleri - Kempe - Lewis
Andreoff - Laich - Dowd
Forbort - Doughty
Muzzin - Martinez
Fantenberg - Folin
Toronto Maple Leafs
Hyman - Matthews - Nylander
Van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Brown
Marleau - Kadri - Komarov
Martin - Moore - Marner
Rielly - Hainsey
Gardiner - Zaitsev
Borgman - Polak
Opposing Preview: Pension Plan Puppets